- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The golf world is tired of waiting for the young guns to stop firing major blanks.

In the five years immediately following Tiger Woods’ shocking major breakout at the 1997 Masters, the game had a constant subplot beneath Tiger’s torrent and Phil’s frustration.

Tiger already had given golf a taste of an athletic revolution, and a full buffet was supposedly on the way. They were known as the young guns — a wave of twentysomethings with flat bellies, astounding talent and no fear.

In a world of would-be Tiger rivals then defined by the paunchy, practice-allergic or constitution-questioned likes of Phil Mickelson, Davis Love, Ernie Els and Fred Couples, the young players promised fitness, precision, commitment and fire.

The golf world bubbled happily about the prospects of players like Spain’s Sergio Garcia, South Africa’s Trevor Immelman, Australians Adam Scott and Aaron Baddeley, Augusta’s Charles Howell and England’s Luke Donald and Paul Casey. This was generation next, a youth movement heralded by Garcia’s sterling second-place performance behind Tiger at the 1999 PGA Championship.

What happened?

Eight years after Garcia teased the golf world at Medinah, the aforementioned young guns (those in this week’s field) are a collective 0-for-132 in the majors.

“If every other 26-year-old was out here winning majors, I’d be annoyed. But that’s not the case,” said Scott, who is 0-for-23. “It’s something that I would like to happen sooner rather than later, but I think you’ve got to be a little patient with this.”

Patient? Prodigies weren’t supposed to need patience until this lost generation arrived on the scene.

Garcia, perhaps the oldest 27-year-old in sports, has become the poster child for young gun failure. Garcia has 12 combined PGA and European tour victories and an equal number of major top 10s, but given his skills and raft of opportunities, the world expected at least one major by now.

“Me also, but it has not worked out that way,” Garcia said yesterday. “I don’t know about young guys or whatever, but I understand that is a hole in my record. That’s why we’re here this week, to hopefully work on that.”

That hope blushes with a bit more promise than usual at this week’s 71st Masters, given the recent rash of minor successes for the group.

Scott, ranked third in the world, won last week in Houston.

Baddeley broke a five-year pro slump with a victory at last year’s Heritage Classic and added to the momentum with a second PGA Tour victory (FBR Open) earlier this season to earn Sports Illustrated’s dark-horse Masters nod.

Casey, a 29-year-old who was brilliant for Europe at the K Club in last year’s Ryder Cup, has one win and five other top 20 finishes in eight starts on both tours this season.

And Howell, the hometown hero built like a flagstick, broke a five-year drought earlier this year at the Nissan Open, bouncing Mickelson in a playoff at Riviera to earn his second PGA Tour victory and a major infusion of confidence.

“I was more relieved than anything,” said Howell, who probably ranks fourth to Tiger, Phil and Scott in publicity this week. “That was real big for my confidence. I needed to win a tournament to feel as good as I did now as opposed to finishing second again.”

Howell shined at Oklahoma State, making his underachieving early career even more surprising.

“I wanted to have a perfect-looking golf swing, and I wanted to have the mechanics and technical aspects of it perfect. I think I bogged down in that,” Howell said of his struggles. “Because at the end of the day, the lowest score wins, not the prettiest golf swing. I think it’s taken me a long time to grow up and learn those things.”

Like all things golf, perhaps the plight of the young guns ultimately comes back to Tiger. If not for Tiger’s immediate adjustment to and outrageous success at the pro level, expectations on those who followed immediately in his footsteps would have been markedly lower. Nobody has a way of making average look incompetent like Woods.

But it has been a while since anyone expected anything remotely on Woods’ level from the game’s younger set. Even Tiger took a swipe at the group when a reporter asked, “Do you start to get the sense that there are maybe a few guys younger than you who can possibly push you and Vijay and Phil on this course now?”

“Who?” responded Tiger, without a hint of a smile, before questioning the young group’s dearth of contending experiences at the Masters. “There’s so many distractions that you have to know how to handle it. Phil had been there many a time before he won, and it helps.”

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